Everyone loves a good hate to love relationship. It’s fun to watch characters who think they loathe one another finding out that they actually kinda like each other after all, and the shifting relationship can be a great way to explore character development.
But here’s the thing: the “hate to love” trope only works if the characters don’t actually have good reasons to hate one another. Either they’re just full of Han and Leia bickeryness, or they hate each other based on misconceptions that’ll all get sorted out once they’re forced to go on an adventure together. At most, the characters can get over their justified hatred by undergoing major character development and learning pretty significant things that they didn’t know before, but that’s only in the hands of a very gifted storyteller across several novels.
Which brings me to The Wrath and the Dawn, a Thousand and One Nights retelling by Renee Abdieh. The basic premise is that young King Khalid keeps murdering his wives, including our protagonist Shahrzad’s best friend, so Shahzrad volunteers to marry him in order to get revenge and kill him.
Obviously, Shahrzad is going to despise him for most of the book, and then find out what’s really been going on, and maybe feel a little bit of sympathy for him. And then, if the book insists on having those two get together, their relationship will grow from there. Right?
Actually, Shahrzad has known Khalid for about three days when she starts to think about how handsome and lovely and kind he is. She still thinks he murdered her best friend for no good reason, but he doesn’t seem like a murdering psychopath when she talks to him, and he hasn’t killed her yet, so she’ll start to fall for him instead. It’s basically Stockholm Syndrome: Arabian Nights edition.
I have no problem with complicated, unlikely relationships, and I seem to be one of the few people on the internet who has a problem with this one. But I really, really do. Because what are books like this really saying? Shahrzad is portrayed as a fierce, brave and determined character, and she is all of those things, except where Khalid is concerned from about chapter four onwards. She feels guilt for betraying her best friend by developing feelings for him, and that’s supposed to be the main conflict, but all this time, she thinks he murdered her best friend. How could she develop feelings for him, beyond those caused by the psychological trauma of her past loss and new-found captivity? Even when she finds out he had “good reasons,” he’s still the reason her best friend is dead. She might be able to forgive him, but loving him more than anything else in the world? It’s not romantic. It’s beyond unhealthy.
Of course, the book is careful to ensure that we know Khalid is not a terrible guy. The prologue doesn’t explain the why of the murders, but it does establish that he hates killing the girls, and that there is a very, very compelling reason there somewhere. This fact is then used to explain and excuse Shahrzad’s relationship with him, even though she has no idea about any of this. It’s also used to make sure that Khalid’s feelings and redemption are the focus of the story, without him having to actually do anything. The narrative’s main focus is on Shahrzad coming to understand Khalid, on her learning how to heal him, regardless of what she knows about him. He doesn’t have to change or grow at all.
And what does this dynamic suggest to us about relationships? It’s all right that she believes he murdered almost a hundred other girls, just because he felt like it, because he’s nice to her and therefore must be a nice guy? That someone who doesn’t look vicious couldn’t possibly be dangerous? The story tells us that he killed all the others, but not Shahrzad, because she’s different, she’s special, and their love is so strong that he can’t let her die. It’s the suggestion that all abusive people act a certain (and obvious) way, and that if someone doesn’t look obviously dangerous, they must actually be nice deep-down, mixed with the idea that the right girl can stop abuse just by being strong enough.
In a way, the book’s attempts to be ultra-feminist make the whole situation worse. Khalid is intrigued by Shahrzad because she’s rude to him, basically. She tells stories, yes, but she’s also defiant, and rejects protocol, and “tells it like it is.” She’s the fantasy world version of a Cool Girl, who can shoot a bow with almost supernatural ability, who doesn’t subscribe to those silly rules of girliness and is stunningly gorgeous and all the guys like her, who gets away with doing all sorts of things she shouldn’t be able to because she’s Not Like Other Girls. I’m oversimplifying here slightly, because she is a pretty interesting character when she’s not swooning over Khalid, but put her in this context where every other wife died, but she somehow magically survives and then falls in love, and all her Super Badass, Super Strong, Super Cool traits take on a far more sinister tone. If only the other wives were strong and interesting and beautiful enough, they too might have survived.
It’s not enough to have a defiant, kick-ass protagonist if the narrative still promotes dangerous ideas about relationships and abuse. A person can be kickass and intelligent and still become trapped in a dangerous relationship, and portraying it as an epic, misunderstood romance where all the focus is on understanding the poor murderous abuser… well, it’s troubling at best.
Not every narrative can become a love story. Love cannot conquer all potential problems. And when a guy has murdered almost a hundred young women, including the protagonist’s best friend, he should probably be taken out of the running for “romantic hero of the year.” Because surely there’s a nice non-murderer nearby who’d make that protagonist far more happy.